Behavior Modification vs. Weight Loss: a False Dichotomy

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I’ve mentioned before that issues seem to come in waves. In the spring we usually get a lot of new leash reactivity clients. With the pandemic we got a huge wave of intrahousehold aggression cases. This winter, though, it seems to be pets who need behavior modification who are also on a weight loss plan. 

Whenever I find that I’m having the same conversation multiple times per week, I add it onto the blog list. So this week is all about how to use food in training while sticking with your pet’s weight management strategy. Let’s dive in!

 

Why we use food in training

I’ve talked in a previous blog post about why we use food in training so frequently. Check it out here for a more in-depth explanation. The short answer is that it’s easier to dispense than other options and usually more effective than other options. Our pets need food to survive which means that it’s valuable; if it’s not valuable (even in a specific moment) it means that there’s something else going on that we need to troubleshoot. Again, there’s a much more in-depth exploration of this topic here

There are plenty of times where the behavior needs and the physical needs of an animal seem to be at odds with each other. A pet going through a behavior modification plan and a weight loss plan at the same time is one of those scenarios. The good news is that we don’t necessarily have to choose between the two!

 

Cutting calories

There are a few different ways to cut calories for pets who need to lose some weight while continuing to use food in training:

  • Use smaller treats. Below is an example of how small of a treat I use for 83-lb Oso. He works better for larger treats, but these suffice for things he knows how to do really well and for playing “find it”. 
  • Experiment with fruits and veggies. If your pet loves low-calorie foods, use them! I trained Oso’s “out” behavior (hanging out outside of the kitchen) exclusively with veggie scraps. Check out the blog about that here
  • Lickety Stiks (below) or broth cubes. Great taste and fewer calories with these flavored liquid options! (Also, shout-out to Duncan’s parents for calling the Lickety Stik “bacon goo” in a recent session. I’m totally stealing the phrase and still giggling about it.) 
  • Use their meals for training. Set aside some of their breakfast to use for training throughout the day. 
  • Feed less at mealtime if it’s a treat-heavy day. If you know you’ve dispensed a lot of treat calories one day, take out the equivalent from that evening’s meal. Talk with your vet before resorting to this a lot to make sure your pet is getting the nutrients they need. 

 

small treat next to a penny for comparison
One thing to keep in mind is that treat value matters (more info here). It’s not necessarily as easy as switching out treats or using kibble in training. There are times where you will need to use the higher-value– and usually higher-calorie– treats to get effective results with your training. Talk with your behavior consultant about where you can cut calories and where it’s imperative to use the better stuff. 

 

Using other reinforcers

Although using food in training is effective and often easier, it’s not the only thing that works. You can absolutely experiment with using other things that your pet enjoys: toys, play time, petting, praise. And don’t forget those “real-life reinforcers”: going through the door, putting the leash on, coming up on the couch. Here’s a post I recently wrote about teaching Oso to stay out of our basement without using any food. 

Now, if you’ve been with us for a little while you probably know what I’m going to say next. Remember: only the learner decides what’s reinforcing. If you decide to switch from giving treats for a sit to only petting them on the head and they stop sitting, then petting on the head isn’t actually reinforcing that behavior. 

To label something as reinforcing we need to observe how behavior changes over the course of our training. If the behavior continues happening or happens more, then what we’re doing is reinforcing. If the behavior happens less frequently or stops happening all together, then it’s not reinforcing. 

Long story short: we should only use something other than food if it’s actually effective. 

 

Phasing out food

I often hear the term, “phasing out food” when poking around the dog training internet (and used to say it myself!) What this should mean (not what it always means when used, though) is that we switch from using food to using some other type of reinforcer for a specific behavior. It doesn’t mean we stop using food altogether or that we stop providing any type of reward for performing a behavior. Really this is another way of saying “using other reinforcers” like the above category.

One way to combat weight gain while on a behavior modification program is to phase out food for behaviors that your pet knows how to do really well in the situations in which they know how to perform them. Oso is great at sitting in the house. Every now and then he gets a treat for sitting, but more often than not he doesn’t. We’ve phased out food for that behavior in that context. Now, he doesn’t have as strong of a reinforcement history for sitting at the vet clinic. That’s harder for him to do and so he still gets treats each time he sits in that context. 

So if we’re concerned about weight gain while working through a behavior modification program, we can phase out food for some behaviors while using treats for others. 

 

Increasing exercise in other ways

One of the challenges for especially dogs going through a weight loss program and a behavior modification program at the same time is that often many of the typical exercise activities are out. Leash reactive dogs often need to limit walks in order to limit triggers. Doggy daycare is out for pups displaying dog-dog aggression. Finding a dog walker is challenging for those stranger danger kiddos. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t exercise our pets in other ways, though. We just need to get a little creative with it. Last year’s February training challenge went through several different ways to provide more physical exercise inside the house for dogs cooped up in the winter. Check it out here

Oso gets most of his physical exercise inside the house in the winter (and we certainly don’t have a big house!) It’s very possible to keep up with the physical exercise part of your pet’s weight loss program while following management strategies for their behavior modification program. Make sure to speak with your vet about incorporating different exercises into your pet’s routine to ensure that it’s safe to do so with them. 

 

Shelving parts of a behavior modification program while working on a weight loss program

There are several stages to a behavior modification program. The first stages are much more about human learning and behavior than it is about training your pet. That means that the first stages don’t necessarily require a lot of extra, high-value treats! If your pet is at a seriously unhealthy weight, let’s work on managing their behavior issues (the first stages) instead of modifying their behavior so we can progress quicker through a weight loss program. As long as we’re managing the behavior so that it’s not getting worse over time we can safely come back to it later. 

 

Now what?

  • If you know your pet needs to lose some weight, your vet should be the first person you talk to. They can help you put together a plan to help your pet safely lose weight. 
  • Do a food preference test to determine what your pet’s favorite foods are and also what lower-calorie foods we can use in training. 
  • If there are behaviors that your pet knows how to do really well, start phasing out treats by decreasing how frequently you treat and increasing other types of reinforcers. Remember: if the behavior starts deteriorating you’re not actually reinforcing. 
  • Explore different types of exercise. Again, talk to your vet first to make sure the exercise is appropriate for your pet. But after that, have at it!
  • Speak with your behavior consultant about how to mitigate calorie intake while working through your pet’s behavior modification plan. We’re here to think outside the box for you!

 

Happy training!

Allie